What a sweet opportunity to share a bit of my heart and encourage others to delight in their faith and heritage! Thank you so much to the Religious Studies Departments of the University of California, Santa Barbara; San Diego State University; California State University, Fresno; California State University, Chico; and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Hi friends, due to the massive influx of emails and messages I've received about this post, I will no longer be responding to messages. Thank you for understanding! Please check the FAQ at the end of this post for my answers to questions I receive the most.
On November 22, 2015 I was fine. On November 23, 2015 my world looked unrecognizable.
Living with a chronic condition sucks. I may be an English major who knows lots of prettier and more sophisticated words to use, but there is no other word I would put there. It just really sucks. And although keeping it bottled up inside is also quite sucky, I've had a lot of hesitations about writing about my experience.
I worried that writing about my chronic condition would make me feel worse—that writing this post would only make me more aware of my challenges. I worried that I would sound like I was complaining or asking for sympathy. I worried that people would scoff and testily remind me how other people have it so much worse. I worried that my words wouldn't help anyone. But as I neared the one-year anniversary of living with a chronic brain condition called Visual Snow, I knew I had to put pen to paper. It was time to find some sort of creative release.
You've probably never heard of Visual Snow. My doctors hadn’t either. As an extremely rare, under-researched condition, Visual Snow is only "treated" by one doctor in North America. And just why did I put the word treated in quotes? Visual Snow is untreatable.
Visual Snow is a condition in the brain that causes me to see television static ( “snow”) in my entire field of vision in both eyes and in all light conditions—even with my eyes closed. It’s hallucinogenic, meaning that this thick layer of little tiny dots moving and swirling and pulsating are not actually present in my physical environment. My Visual Snow causes double vision in the very center of my field of vision, light sensitivity, and palinopsia. It makes me feel like moving objects are flying at me much faster than they are, and that nonmoving objects are moving. It's a struggle to read a sentence without accidentally skipping up or down several lines, and I have trouble transitioning between focusing my eyes on something near and then far (or vice versa). I see stars à la old-school cartoons. Visual Snow has also caused my tinnitus, dizziness, heavy pressure in my head and face, lack of concentration, the feeling of my whole body buzzing, bright red eyes at the end of the day, and general cognitive fogginess. (Here I am sounding like an elderly lady at the ripe, old age of twenty-two. Pass the prune juice.).
Looking at me, you probably would never guess that I have a brain condition. Since VS is traced back to the occipital lobe, knowing that Visual Snow is "all in my head" doesn’t make it any less real—it actually makes it worse, as it means my condition is completely inescapable. The problem is inside my brain.
It's hard to put into words what Visual Snow looks and feels like, but below is a simulator to help you with visualizing it. As I didn't make this animation, it doesn't perfectly align with my experience. If I could edit it, I would make the dots more transparent (which means I can still definitely read and drive and do all that, but it's like there's this staticky layer in my vision that I desperately want to peel away).
To someone who isn't afflicted with Visual Snow, this all sounds hard to comprehend. I get it. In the early days of my VS, I remember the pure frustration of trying to explain to the urgent care doctor what was going on. He was baffled, took X-rays of my neck (all clear), and told me to seek medical help elsewhere. A few weeks went by, and my weird symptoms hadn't cleared up, so I went to the emergency room and got a CT scan of my brain. The scan came back clear, and the ER doctor told me it was probably a migraine aura that just so happened to be lasting for a month. He gave me a muscle relaxant and shooed me out the door. I then went to my primary care doctor. He had no clue what I was going on about, but he ordered a cervical spine MRI for me, as I had experienced a low-key whiplash event (slamming on the brakes in the car—not even a true car accident) right around the onset of my Visual Snow. The cervical spine MRI came back clear, so I was then referred to an ophthalmologist and a neurologist. After several tests, the ophthalmologist said that my eyes were structurally fine, and that there was nothing he could do to help me. The neurologist also did several tests and ordered a brain MRI for me. The tests and the brain MRI came back clear, so she told me to wait it out and come back in six months (!) if I were still having problems. It felt like one very frustrating game of hot potato. I, the patient, was the potato that none of them wanted to deal with for more than a few minutes. I so badly wanted a doctor to fully commit to helping me find relief. Instead, I was passed on from one doctor to the next, none of them wanting to take on my case and advocate for me.
At that point, I had exhausted my local options, and I felt so alone in dealing with my mysterious condition.
I had always pictured doctors as these all-knowing superhumans who, with their incredible intuition, could quickly figure out what was wrong with a person, treat them, bandage them up, and send them home with a lollipop in a matter of a few hours. Through my several-month escapade trying to find treatment for my Visual Snow, I realized that doctors and researchers are just humans. And that in the case of this exceptionally rare, under-researched condition, their guess was as good as mine. It was a very, very scary realization.
There are Facebook pages and support groups and websites and forums populated by people suffering from Visual Snow and trying to find relief. And although I looked at those resources for a short while, I quickly realized that reading about other people's struggles with VS made me feel worse—reading other people's posts made me feel helpless, anxious, hopeless, and ultra-aware of the jumbled, whirling visual mess in front of me. I needed a plan to help me cope.
...so I did nothing.
Well, I very strategically did nothing about my Visual Snow. I decided that if dwelling on my condition made it worse, then I needed to do the opposite. I needed to teach myself to forget about my condition. So I clicked out of the forums and Facebook groups. I stopped reading the jargony medical literature that I could barely comprehend anyways. I told my family to not even utter the words "Visual Snow" in front of me unless it was absolutely necessary. And I almost never brought it up with my friends. I was carefully guarding myself from spending any extra mental energy on my condition. I then turned to a twofold plan of my own invention:
1- get my anxiety attacks under control, and 2- be very, very busy to distract my mind.
The latter was undoubtedly the easier of the two. Anxiety is something I haven't written about much here, as I try to keep my public writing centered on more joyful topics. But anxiety has had a presence in my life for a very long time, and its sharp edges make VS all the more mentally painful. Once I started reeling in my anxiety—which is probably worth a post of its own—I turned to part two of my coping strategy. I needed to be very, very busy in order to distract my mind. I thought about the things I was passionate and curious about (Religious Studies, filmmaking, literature, nature, entrepreneurship) and began pouring out my heart and soul into meaningful organizations, activities, and relationships. And after a few months, a strange and wonderful thing began to happen. I started to forget (at least on a surface level) that I had a brain condition. I just sort of stopped noticing that I was seeing the world through a very muddled lens.
Of course, it hasn't been a perfect plan. I mean, it basically centers on denial. And there are certainly days or weeks where I have flare-ups, and my symptoms feel worse than usual, and my brain can't stop obsessing over it (...like this week, for instance). But I try to forget. I try to stay busy. And I try to stay calm. I am, of course, praying for new development in the medical world. I'm praying that the research currently underway in Europe is fruitful. But until then, it's reduce anxiety and do really neat things so that my brain has other thoughts to occupy itself with. So, friend, if there's something you're going through that's leaving you bruised and battered, I encourage you to sit with it and figure out a plan of action. Unlike mine, it probably won't include techniques for forgetting. It just might be one of those bear hunts (à la Helen Oxenbury's picture book), where you can't go over it, you can't go under it, and you've got to go through it.
Abounding in hope,
As a reminder, I no longer respond to emails and messages I receive about VS because there are just too many! My heart goes out to all of you, because I know that VS is scary in the early days. Since my story has been a comfort for a lot of people, here is a recap of the questions I'm asked the most, as well as my answers.
1. How do you deal with your Visual Snow?
I try my absolute hardest to not let it control my days. I make a very concentrated effort to stay very busy and fill my life with things that bring me joy.
2. Isn't that easier said than done?
Yes, in some ways. I've had Visual Snow for almost three years now (at the time of writing these FAQs), and staying busy has been the most helpful thing for me--I can actually forget about my VS on some days! It takes a lot of mental toughness and tenacity to stay busy and focused on my goals and daily joys, but it becomes easier with practice. My advice is to keep pushing yourself to continue the activities you enjoy (if possible) and spend time with people you love. Don't let your vision take those things from you--you do have power over your VS, even if it doesn't feel like it.
3. What about visual snow-related anxiety?
I like to journal to stay calm and work through my anxieties. Talking with a therapist also helps. I've found that anxiety makes my VS seem worse, so being extra gentle with myself and tackling my anxiety helped my VS as well.
2015 was a year of humility and change. It was a year of growth and of character over comfort, of postcards and patience and a whole lot of prayer. But amidst it all, 2015 was a year of unexpected joy and the most precious of blessings. Here are five lessons I've learned along the way this year...
1. Treasure your health (and your mama).
Brain tumor. Two words that I never thought would become rooted in my vocabulary and daily life. When my mom was diagnosed with a plum-sized brain tumor in September, life underwent a radical change overnight. Our “new normal” consisted of MRIs, appointments with specialists, hospital waiting rooms, and taking endless phone messages. Dinnertime conversation revolved around the anatomy and function of the temporal and parietal lobes. And after my mom’s brain surgery—which, by the way, was beautifully successful, and she handled everything with such grace and bravery—I found myself thrust into the position of nurse, pharmacist, caregiver, chauffeur, and housekeeper, while balancing college finals and dealing with a sprained neck. I was running on empty. Exhausted and stressed to the core, I still knew undoubtedly that I would do anything for that sweet “patient” of mine. That’s what love is. Though this season of life has been a bit trying, it’s shown me just how much I treasure my family. Now that my mama is beginning to recover, we are so joyful. We laugh at her punk-rock haircut (half shaved, exposing a rather gnarly horseshoe-shaped incision). We joke about her fifteen prescription bottles. And, most of all, we talk with new urgency about what changes we want make in our lives and how we will more actively pursue our passions. Brain surgery has been a wakeup call for our entire family. Cherish your family, cherish your health.
2. Buy the plane ticket. Take the long drive.
Part of having a non-linear college path means that my closest friends are dotted all across the country. As someone who tends to have fewer but closer friends, I’ve realized the importance of having highly intentional friendships. For me, this has meant saving my money for train tickets, or spending long, percolated hours in the thick of Los Angeles traffic—doing whatever I have to do just to get there and be with people that I love. My “love language” also happens to be quality time, so I’ve found it incredibly fulfilling to be able to see faraway friends and spend the weekend or even just the afternoon together. This intentionality in friendships has also meant more emails, text messages, and written letters exchanged (with emphasis on the latter... I love writing and receiving letters in the mail).
3. Savor the little things.
Everyone goes through a period of inevitable drought, when the finances are tight, morale is low, and things feel hopeless or just monotonous. In such times, savor the small moments—the golden retriever napping next to you, a catch-up phone call with a friend, a steaming mug of something delicious paired with a well-loved book. This year, I’ve had to rely on God more than ever, and I know that he’s blessed me with an abundance of beautiful moments in return. The little things have kept me feeling joyful, blessed, and grateful for each day.
4. Forge ahead, even if you can't see (literally).
With my sprained neck in November came an influx of vision disturbances—a catalyst for several MRIs, neurology appointments, ophthalmology appointments, and blood work (my family has gotten quite comfortable at the doctor's office this year!). At first it felt like life was on pause as I was waiting to heal. But my normal vision didn't return, or at least not yet, so I’ve had to learn how to adjust and forge ahead. And the crazy thing is that forging ahead has made me feel more normal; some of my symptoms have become mere annoyances that I can forget about. Although I have to take extra good care of myself, I’ve actually found more relief from pushing myself to do more, even when I don’t feel like it. Every day is much too precious to be wasted (I think that’s been one of the overarching themes of the year).
5. Let yourself dream.
As much as I advocate living in the present moment, I’ve recently found a lot of joy in letting myself just dream—of being completely impractical and getting lost in daydreams about the future. And I’ve found that it’s maybe not so frivolous after all; dreaming helps me better understand where my heart is without that pesky practicality getting the way. I dream about being an author (...without thinking about the unstable paycheck). I dream about my future vegetable garden and neighborhood and family, of the books I’ll write and the people I’ll meet. I also like to dream about the future that’s right around the corner: 2016. How will Friday, January 1st look different from today? What can I do to actively make 2016 excellent? What does this fresh, new year have in store? 2015 was a humbling year with some jagged edges, but it also was a year of wonder. I am wonderstruck at how everything—the good and the bad—worked together seamlessly in 2015. Looking back, I see God’s hand in every single moment, and I can’t wait to see what He has in store next. After all, "we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28).
Happy New Year, friends!
1. Finals are [finally] over:
After taking six finals (six finals...21 units was rough this semester), I am relieved to be free of the burden that is finals week. I don’t mind school (okay... I actually love school), but I do suffer from mild bouts of test anxiety and a (not-so-mild) case of perfectionism, making for a stressful testing situation. Of course, most of the relief comes when the grades are finally in the books and submitted, but being able to have free time now is exhilarating. I love waking up in the morning and thinking, “So Rachel, what shall we do today? Surfing? Baking? Peruse cute neighborhoods? Take a road trip?"
2. The weather turns drippy and cold:
Living on the California coast means that we have a 0% chance of snow (unlike the many ice and snow storms I got caught in when I went to school in Texas). Despite the snowless forecast, I love winter on the coast because the sky turns grey, and the weather gets “cold” (think mid 50s-60s) and rainy—perfect for curling up by the fireplace with an old Nancy Drew book and a mug of decaf.
3. Decorating the house:
I love nesting—carving out my own little niche wherever I am. I’ve moved several times over the last few years, which has helped me fine tune this nesting habit. One of the sweet parts about the Christmas season is getting to unload the (several) dozen plastic boxes from the attic or garage, as I put those skills to use and transform the home. With warm, rich tones and soft fabrics, the house becomes cozy and inviting during December.
4. Wrapping gifts:
As a creative little soul, I am always searching for projects (today I painted black chalkboard paint on a wood slab...). And though gifts are absolutely not the foundation of the Christmas season, I love being tasked with wrapping. Patterned paper, endless supplies of pens, ribbons, and tags... drool. I think I’ve asked my mom every day for the past two weeks if she needs anything wrapped. ("Brown paper packages tied up with strings, these are a few of my favorite things...") My fondness for detail means that all of the gifts match, ornamented with sprigs of pine needles or tied up neatly with burlap twine. So satisfying.
5. Christmas music (on repeat):
I’m one of those people that listens to Christmas music all year long. I definitely have a lot of friends that are opposed to this, but from my layman’s perspective (Polar Express reference), celebrating Christ’s birth through song should happen all year. I love sitting down to the piano or grabbing my guitar and pouring my heart into Little Drummer Boy or The First Noel. Christmas music is classic and pure; the soft sounds of Sally Harmon's Cozy Christmas instantly warm my heart and the home.
6. Light, light, light:
I’m scared of the dark (admittedly). But falling asleep to the subtle twinkling of the neighbor’s Christmas lights or going down for a snack at night and being greeted by the glittering Christmas tree is incredibly soothing.
7. Christmas newsletters:
My family sends one out every year; each person in the family writes a few sentences about what’s been going on in their life the past year, and we slap it all together on cute paper and add a letterpress Christmas card. It’s so neat to get Christmas newsletters in the mail from friends and family both near and far. Since I have moved so much (and I don’t have a Facebook), it’s a little harder to keep up with past neighbors, elementary school friends, old sports coaches, etc. But the sweet thing about a newsletter is the small, albeit significant, effort to stay connected at least once a year—to share the joys and triumphs and delight in friendship.
8. Advent calendars:
A piece of chocolate every day keeps the sadness away.
9. [Old] Christmas movies:
I don’t really like movies... my inattentive ADHD + highly sensitive soul + hatred of any sort of conflict (even just in a movie plot) means that movies are not my favorite thing, but my favorite movies happen to be Christmas ones (and are played all month on ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas). My all-time favorite is Eloise at Christmastime—Julie Andrews, Gavin Creel (I would quite like to marry his character, Bill), Christine Baranski (Martha May Whovier in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Cinderella’s stepmother in Into the Woods, Tanya in Mamma Mia, etc.), and Sofia Vassilieva make for an incredible cast. Also, one of the main character’s names is Rachel, which makes me very, very happy. Did I mention the movie is set in the 50s? Swoon.
10. Quiet time:
Because of item one—no more finals—I finally have time for quiet, soul-nourishing, time-consuming activities like puzzles and baking and painting. Happy heart.
11. Christmas Eve Festivities:
My family is Norwegian, so our Christmas celebration is a little different than that of other American families. As is tradition, after church we eat dinner (tacos... not sure where that came from) then open all of our presents under the tree—Christmas Eve is our “main” Christmas celebration. On Christmas day we open our stockings, have brunch with family, and spend the rest of the day together (usually in pajamas). One of the things I love about the holiday season is that it makes me feel connected to my past; by upholding our Norwegian traditions generations after my great-great-grandparents immigrated from Norway (and great-grandparents from Italy), I’m reminded of where I came from. (Fun fact: On the Italian side of the family, my great-grandfather never even learned how to read and write in English! E' pazzesco... that's crazy!)
The alpha, omega, beginning, and end, He very well could have been numbers 1-12 on this list. Christmas has become increasingly commercialized—Santa Claus and his elves, though a lovely symbol of generosity and love, have overpowered the Christmas season, shrouding the real reason we celebrate. I was shocked the other day whilst watching the old Lizzie McGuire episode where Lizzie is building her Christmas float. She forgets what Christmas is all about, and her brother Matt quotes the book of Luke (as does Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas Movie). I was surprised in the best way that the gospel was on Disney Channel, even though the episode was also laden with images of Santa Claus (played by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, no less). The sad part, though, is that I don’t think that would happen on any mainstream TV show in 2014. But I hope, hope, hope it will. Christ our Lord is the reason for the season.
“ ...And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
"Try to give your intellect as much food as possible."
- Leo Tolstoy
General education classes aren’t usually a cause for celebration. They’ve been stereotyped—and fiercely so—by college students nationwide as insignificant and uninteresting, with syllabi spilling with “busy work” and required texts. Gen eds are, essentially, just another box to check off on the degree progress report and one step closer to graduation. As a freshman in college, I felt the same way. Faced with statistics, Italian, speech, and economics, exploring the thrilling world of marginal benefit and economic efficiency was, well, hardly thrilling. I had tunnel vision, and a bad case at that, focused on my major classes for the content but on my gen eds for the grade. It was the classic case of “study for the 'A,' then forget everything.” But with time (and multiple completed general eds), I've recognized the joy and value in general education. It's a chance to explore uncharted waters—to learn about something out of your comfort zone from professors who have made that topic their life work. It's a chance to learn from classmates with richly diverse backgrounds, as everyone is bound by the general education requirement but simultaneously following different paths.
This breadth of knowledge is a staple of the college experience. I think we're lucky to have to take general eds; I don't know that I would find the time to pursue things like oceanography, British literature, or reasoning and rhetoric were they not all required. And I truly think I would be missing out had my college experience not been stitched together with underwater storms, Mansfield Park, or the examination of fallacious statements.
Five Classes, infinite lessons:
- Bits of Joy in General Eds -
1. Introduction to the Bible
My previous university had a religion requirement that elicited groans from the religious and non-religious alike. Religion classes had the reputation for being "like, impossible," but it was an unavoidable requirement, and so I tentatively settled into my Bible class day one of sophomore year. This single general education religion class changed my entire life. I fell in love with the material, examining theological underpinnings and researching historical context. I had been feeling for a while that my previous major wasn't my calling, but abandoning a 1/4-completed major seemed impractical and intimidating. Nonetheless, my passion for religion couldn't be ignored: I met with my professor a few times throughout the semester and finally worked up the gritty courage to change my major. Change my path. Start over. Reevaluate. It was equal parts scary and wonderful, as change tends to be. One class altered my entire future plan, as I replaced my goal of writing for a fashion magazine with the ambition of earning a Ph.D. in religious studies.
And how nice does "Dr. Rachel _____" sound?
(insert relevant future last name when I'm married in a billion years.)
2. Oceanography & Marine Biology
Leaving my previous university in pursuit of another meant a year of additional required classes, which of course encompassed subjects that I thought I was done with—namely, science and math. Luckily, California has its perks: my two additional science classes came in the form of oceanography and marine biology. Science became, for the most part, fun again. Labs were completed in a kayak, as salt water sprayed my face, and my triceps (and nose) burned happily in response to being outdoors. I learned about all the different ways a wave can break on shore, why the California coast is so foggy in the summer, and that if I could, I would most definitely be a whale shark.
3. Reasoning & Argumentation
My major character flaw: I like to be right much too much (all the time), and I don't always go about it in the right way. Though most of the time, the "right way" means demonstrating humility and tactfulness (letting go of the petty, insignificant disagreements), my reasoning and argumentation class was fundamentally about how to "fight right" in both oral and written forms. It was in the context of this class that I turned my borderline-draconian view of social media into a written argument, directly countering a peer's argument that social media is fine in moderation. I have written about social media on my blog before (here, here and here), but learning to shape those thoughts into something more calculated and purposeful is a skill that will benefit me forever and ever and ever and ever.
Plus, writing the argument and consequently seeking out evidence helped me feel less alone in my choice to not use social media (although I do have, like, two Instagram pictures which is sort of bizarre for a twenty-year-old). It frequently feels like I'm the only one without a Facebook or a Twitter, so reading well-articulated thoughts of likeminded people was reassuring. There is great joy in exploring ideas different than your own, but the "me too"—someone who feels the same way—is a comfort.
4. Early American History
I have never enjoyed history, which is curious because so much of religious studies is history. And it's enjoyable in the context of religion! I think that A.P. U.S. history in high school left me a bit jaded; I never did remember all of the presidents (which, of course, my A.P. test score shows). But here I am again, in an American history class, and I've taken a different perspective. In reading Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thích Nhất Hạnh, I came across the loveliest thought:
Studying history is, by that logic, an act of respect and a way to nourish our own sense of belonging in the community, nation, and planet. The pages in my American history textbook aren't arduous; rather they are a reflection of "the jewels of our own tradition." I like that.
5. European Literature
Although I study English alongside religion and I love to read, I much prefer writing to reading literature (or so I thought). We read Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Inferno in high school honors English, and I admittedly didn't care for either work. In my college European literature class, however, I found myself swooning over bits of prose and cross-referencing soupçons of history found in the footnotes.
There is something to say for revisiting a work of literature. Some books are a bit dense on the first read. Just as I get used to hot bath water by getting in, getting out, and getting in again (does anyone else do this?), revisiting literature makes a big difference. Besides, I don't think that such venerated works are meant to be read and tossed aside. They need to be dissected, read aloud, discussed, and read again. And even then, we may never "get it." The intentions of ancient Roman and Greek authors sometimes appear to be nothing but a mystery (if you've read the ending of Virgil's Aeneid, WHAT was Virgil thinking? Although... he did pass away before he had the chance to revise the work, and Augustus published it as is. If Virgil had been given the opportunity for revision, would he have changed the ending? The world may never know...).
Joyfully in Christ-
(and my mom let me have chocolate before dinner tonight, so I'm thrilled)
The other night, one of my dearest and far-away friends sent me this quote from Cold Tangerines, a book by Shauna Niequist.
And before the evening was over, I found myself buying the whole book on my Kindle—a whopping seven-dollar investment (for a college student, that’s like a Panera You-Pick-Two)—happy to support sweet Shauna because I adored her book Bittersweet, but surprising myself nonetheless. I mean... I didn’t even try to snag a dog-eared and faded paperback copy for less than a dollar from the hoards of used book offers on Amazon. No, that wouldn’t do. Overcome by a strange and compelling sense of urgency, I needed the book, then and there. And in my experience, anything but apathy is worth listening to, so the urgent little voice in my head and I clicked purchase and watched as it loaded onto my Kindle.
That night I began the book as I tucked myself in between the sheets. The first few chapters that I read in those fleeting evening hours (before sleep convinced my eyelids of their weight) were about making small, daily life tasks significant and pleasing to the Lord. I was captivated, but not convinced.
How could the monotony of my daily life—the making and unmaking of my excessive twelve-pillowed bed, the strands of dental floss that didn’t quite make it into the trash bin, and the granola bar I shoved in my mouth as I put the key in the ignition when I was running late be significant? Meaningful? Ecclesiastical? How could those moments be anything, really?
By the next day I had forgotten all of those thoughts, as deep thinking was temporarily lost to a laborious to-do list (and an impending marine biology exam). But in a moment of rest, I cracked open Jesus Calling and lingered over my comically large coffee mug: "Even the most routine part of your day can be a spiritual act of worship, holy and pleasing to Me."
So there it was again—moments of worth. Moments like diamonds and days like treasure. It was about bypassing the “Sunday morning show” and living in Christ’s truth as I made oatmeal and got the mail and ran out of the good shampoo. Had I been living like that? Had I really been doing life with God? Did I even know what that looked like?
So I kept reading Cold Tangerines. Shauna was on to something with this whole “celebrating the extraordinary nature of everyday life” thing. Through little bundles of chapters and bookmarked pages, I began to feel like she was this sort of older-sister-meets-mother mentor figure to me. And I felt God speaking to me through her.
Awareness of God—His love, His presence, His plan put to action in everyday happenings—makes all the difference. It’s in this awareness of the subtleties of His voice and the vastness of His love that we truly do life with Him. It’s in these small moments, like chopping apples and putting on socks, that we have the grand opportunity to dwell in His love and light and reflect it back out into the world.
Recently I’ve gotten into the habit of skipping over my usual Spotify playlists and listening to my “Jesus music” while driving. Little by little, driving has shifted from a tedious, basic task, to a time where I can reflect, recharge, and gear up for/wind down from the day’s happenings. By letting God into these otherwise insignificant ten or twenty minutes, my mood improves and outlook shifts.
By pouring out love and intention every day, we’re consequently filled up with Christ. It’s the crux of the Creator–creation relationship. As instruments of His love and purpose, we’re called to worship in all moments—both big and small—and make disciples as we cut the grass and chat with the UPS guy. There is worth, power, significance, and love in the non-events. And so today: be intentional. Pour out. Be filled up. Harvest joy. Practice gratitude. Every moment is your testimony.
Although San Diego was my hometown for a solid 90% of my life, my affections for its sun-drenched streets and sea-salty air have only heightened over the past two years that I’ve been elsewhere.
It’s human nature to take things for granted—even if those “things” were glassy, salty sliders (a.k.a. gnarly waves, brah), perfect weather, and bare feet. But it’s also human nature to romanticize these fragments of life that we’ve long since left behind. So when I went “home” to San Diego last weekend to visit my two best friends, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Maybe San Diego wasn’t as all-around-lovely as my memories were insinuating. I knew my friends would be amazing (as always), but was San Diego still my home? Did it still feel magical? I was a little worried.
And yet, the moment I arrived, I knew my memories weren’t idealizing San Diego in any way—if anything, my memories fell short of the real thing! Hopping in the car with one of my best friends (and clutching a sweet yellow bouquet of flowers that she had brought to welcome me), we took to the back roads, looping through one of San Diego’s most beautiful and unabashedly wealthy areas. Between shout-singing our favorite songs at the top of our lungs (current favorites: Age of Worry by John Mayer and Leave the Night On by Sam Hunt) and ogling over the sprawling estates and palm tree-lined sidewalks, I realized how lucky I was to have multiple places to call home, but mostly how fortunate I was to have such sweet friends to come home to.
We spent the weekend engaging in all sorts of shenanigans.
Between creamsicle shakes at our favorite beach-side café and visits to Trader Joes to stock up on “supplies” (those big tubs of tiny chocolate chip cookies and sea salt pita chips), I felt God’s light and love in both of my two friends. Their laughter was contagious, their attitudes positive and adventuresome. We did a photoshoot with a friend-of-a-friend photographer, melted over Jack Johnson’s sweet melodies whilst stretched out on blankets with thousands of other concert-goers, and even managed to make it over to Michael’s for craft supplies (we ended up spending an hour drawing out our favorite bible verses and worship song lyrics—tune my heart to sing thy grace).
In the midst of the joy, the workaholic part of me felt gluttonous, spending three days with my favorite people, eating nothing but my favorite food, and doing all of my favorite activities. But don’t we need those kinds of weekends? My soul felt entirely refreshed after Labor Day weekend, and I was reminded of the real urgency in taking care of myself and mixing in ample play time with work time.
As a perfectionist taking 20 units of school, nursing a fascination in interfaith dialogue/microfinance/social business-meets-religion books (there are six on my bedside table right now), and big dreams of getting my Ph.D. in Religious Studies, I forget to play. I remember to lie in front of the television watching cartoons and eating cereal out of the box at 9 p.m., but I forget to play. To gather up friends, release the stresses and responsibilities for a few days, and just romp around town.
Maybe you feel the same way. Maybe your workday is long, your sleep cycle is out of whack, and your friendships are fraying. Maybe your grades are perched between a rock and a hard place, you’ve run out of mac and cheese (sincerest condolences), or your family is driving you mad. The washing machine is broken, the gas gauge is on empty, and the jury duty summons came in the mail. You’ve cracked your iPhone and shattered your patience with this whole “life” thing.
We’ve all been there, friend. So my humble call on this Thursday evening is this: work hard tomorrow and play hard this weekend. Go surfing. Go hiking. Make dinner with your family. Go on a run with your best friends. Think. Dream. Talk about something meaningful.
In closing, I’d like to mention something about that last line: talk about something meaningful. Last night I was talking to one of my best friends (the same one who brought me flowers when I arrived in San Diego), and she said:
“I have a question for you. Do you think you are who you believe you are, or you are who you choose to be? C.S. Lewis thought the first; I’m more inclined to think the second. And it’s been rattling my brain.”
We ended up having the best discussion about valuing action over passive thought, and we decided on a prayer that we both want to start praying more frequently regarding turning our actions into a stronger faith in Christ’s presence and steadfastness. I feel lucky to have friends that are sisters in Christ. I feel lucky to have San Diego as one of the many places I call home. I feel lucky that God blessed me with an incredible weekend to recharge.
Passing on a little positivity this evening-
Life is messy, but here's what I know so far...
1. “There is nothing wrong with loving the crap out of everything. Negative people find their walls. So never apologize for your enthusiasm.” | R. Adams
Negativity is draining. It’s human nature to slip into sourness and (shamefully) take it out on those around us. But because of the complexities of the human mind, changing your thoughts is possible. Gently step back from your next negative/hectic/stressful situation (sometimes physically) and reframe. How could this experience help you? Stretch you? Lead you? Next time negativity comes knocking, kick it out of your mind.
2. “I have sea foam in my veins; I understand the language of waves.” | J. Cocteau
I grew up on the coast and had a happy, sea-salty childhood studded with camping and kayaks, boogie boards and wetsuits. My weekends consisted of watching my brother compete in rough water swims, or donning a snappy one-piece for my own swim meets. A towel and swimsuit took up permanent residence in the trunk of my car by the time I was sixteen (for spontaneous beach trips). And at age seventeen I was baptized in the ocean with one of my best friends, redeemed by God’s grace and humbled by his vast, oceanic creation. Then came eighteen—Texas. No nearby ocean. No tide pools to wade in, dolphins to swim with, or shells to collect. When I returned to the California coast two years later, the ocean welcomed me with open arms. It was only once I left that I realized how much the ocean means to me. Find your happy place.
3. “We have a tendency to want the other person to be a finished product while we give ourselves the grace to evolve.” | T. D. Jakes
As a sensitive old soul, I often set really high expectations for my friends/family/teachers/etc. and can’t help but be disappointed when said people don’t live up to said expectations. I don’t think the error is (always...) in my high expectations, but in failing to forgive easily. I need to be more generous in handing out my forgiveness. I can get a teensy bit upset when a cashier doesn’t smile at me, or when the secretary at the doctor’s office snaps at me on the phone! Although they need to read #1, I need to exercise tenderness and grace. We're all only human.
4. “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” | M. Oliver
Boys boys boys. Most girls want a guy that's honest, charming, funny, and blah, blah, blah... All of that is excellent, but you know what I really love? Curiosity. And not in a gossipy shallow way, but in a thirst-for-knowledge way. Curiosity is the desire to know how to do things. How a gadget works. Why whales migrate. What someone else's stance on carbon emission is. Curiosity enriches our lives as we learn from our neighbors, share our own experiences, and delight in the sweetness of learning something new.
5. “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” | M. L’Engle
This lesson is challenging because discrediting other people or pointing fingers is often our automatic response (even if only in our minds). As a (world) religions major in college, I've been stretched and tested on a daily basis, studying other faiths and learning from/alongside people with different beliefs than my own. The gritty truth? It's hard. I remember calling my parents after my first world religions class, because I was having trouble relating to the diverse faiths in the classroom (present in both my classmates and in the textbook). But now, that's actually why I love studying all of the religions of the world—understanding other people and cultures is difficult without exploring the rhythm of faith that beats through their lives and hearts. As a Christian, I want to follow Christ with a servant's heart and act in a way that would make God proud.
6. “You can never get enough of nature. To be surrounded by it is to be stilled. It salves the heart. The mountains, the trees, the endless plains. The moon, the myriad of stars. Every man can be made quiet and complete." | A. Burns
I love being outside. If I could live in one of those open-air homes in Bali (outdoors and indoors at the same time!), I would. Even my best thinking (sometimes brooding) is done outside, as my feet lead me from one place to the next. I think just feeling the sun and wind on my skin and the grass or pavement under my toes makes me feel connected. Nature is humbling—I realize I'm only a small fragment of His creation. In my oceanography summer school class, we learned that over 70% of the Earth is covered by water—as if I didn't feel tiny and wonderfully overwhelmed enough by the 30% of the Earth that is land! As my favorite Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, says, "walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet." Side note: does everybody have a favorite Vietnamese Buddhist monk?
7. “May you live like the lotus—at ease in muddy water.” | Buddha
In my childhood home, we had a huge koi pond beside the front door. Though the water itself was sometimes vile, the pond was my favorite part of the house (except for the bird aviary... more on that another time). The koi fish were each over a foot long, and one of them was in love with my brother—if he stuck his finger in the water, the fish would "kiss" it and not let go (oh, the memories). The pond attracted Snowy Egrets, raccoons, Blue Herons, and most of the passing by neighbors. But the most incredible part of it all emerged in May through September, when the water lilies bloomed. From the brownish-green, gunky water sprouted the most incredible pink and white and yellow blooms. And that's really the magic of it—the lotus will only grow up through the mud (though water lilies and lotus flowers are not the same to a botanist, they grow in the same conditions). We can only flourish by growing up through our own mud: the little annoyances, the big challenges, the life-threatening situations and the stubbed toes alike. Live like the lotus and embrace your circumstances. Learn from your mud. Grow from your mud.
8. “Be careful who you open up to. Only a few truly care—the rest are just curious.” | Unknown
Remember the little distinction I made in #4? Curiosity comes in many forms, and it's important to realize that not everyone has sparkling intentions. Although this seems like a lesson learned in high school halls, I think this is one of those gritty, uncomfortable learning experiences that we all face more than once. It may be someone at work, in class, in your club/sport/group/whatever—some people seem to prey on secrets and feelings and vulnerability. Guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23), but don't shield it from those who truly love you. Be discerning.
9. “You have more to do than be weighed down by pretty or beautiful. You are a fiery heart and a wicked brain. Do not let your soul be defined by its shell.” | M.K.
As Ann Voskamp said, "Please hear me, Girl: The world has enough women who know how to do their hair. It needs women who know how to do hard and holy things." You're more than lipstick. You aren't the frivolous, frolicking, fairytale princess that the world assumes you are and should be. You're a kick-butt, get-things-done, selfless, brilliant, fiery kind of gal. (Or maybe you're a male reading this. You rock too.)
10. “I used to wonder why I was busting my ass at calculus when I was interested in the arts, but I felt that there was a relationship between working hard at school and taking your dreams seriously. I still think that if you’re excited about something, you have to work at it.” | E. Koenig
I love school. I am, as Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote, "such a shameless student." The hand-raising, correct-the-textbook's-punctuation, set-out-an-outfit-before-bed type. Growing up, I was an okay student grade-wise, making As and Bs, with each report card praising my "citizenship" instead of my academic abilities. I felt like I had to try so much harder than all of the other kids: middle school homework would take me six or seven hours, I couldn't write notes fast enough in high school, and I had no real motivation other than to "get good grades" so I could "get into a good college." What's worse, my older brother was a superhuman student (Who manages to get only one B in an entire college career?! And it was actually a B+...). Luckily, there was a shift in the universe. It wasn't until college that I loved learning. Yes, I still think tests are scary and a red correcting pen is the devil's writing utensil of choice, but there is so much joy in knowledge! Books and documentaries, classes and speeches! I wanted to gobble up all of the facts and poems and paintings like a glutton. Working hard and appreciating subjects outside of your career path can be enlightening and can help prepare you for that disinteresting task you have to do/that internship that you don't love but want to stick with/etc.
11. “Our willingness to wait reveals the value we place on the object we’re waiting for.” | C. Stanley (Isiah 64:4)
Patience is my Achille's heel. Learning to wait on the Lord is somewhat of a work in progress. I hate the unknown (anxious person problems) and always want to be in control of situations. Since my leap out of one university in Texas and into uncharted waters, God is making sure I'm getting my fair share of practice.
12. “Being positive in a negative situation is not naïve. It’s leadership.” | R. Marston
Last Thanksgiving break, I found myself on an extremely turbulent flight back to my university. The plane was lurching and dropping in the air (planes ride in the air like boats do in the water. There are currents both good and bad...according to the pilot), and everyone was screaming. My little soul didn't know what to do, so I ended up holding hands with the woman next to me as we prayed and tried to comfort her little dog. "Jesus has given the pilot all of the skills he needs to fly this plane," she told her dog. "The pilot is very capable." I was taken aback by her positivity amidst the chaos. Maybe it was more to reassure herself than her pup (who surely had zero clue what was going on besides its little popping ears), but her positivity was leadership in those scary few hours.
13. “They want to see you do well, but never better than them.” | Unknown
I'm convinced that competition is engrained in our genetic makeup. As another one of those "human nature" things, we want to excel more than our peers, even if those peers are loved ones. In high school, there was a girl on my swim team who was both my biggest rival and closest friend in the sport. Every 50 freestyle we would end up 0.1 or 0.2 seconds apart, often with me as the loser (though not always... heheh). I was thrilled that she was doing so well—she was my friend, after all—but I didn't want her to be better than me. For some reason, it hurt more to lose against her since we were friends! With a rather "colorful" background of 10 sports under my belt (thanks, Mom and Dad), I know what it feels like to be the sore loser and to receive the negative energy from a sore loser—neither feel good. Can we just encourage each other? And hold hands? And all be friends? (Perhaps I also have a young soul—probably around kindergarten or preschool-aged—pining for the days of sharing crayons and making friends by sharing my cool big Ticonderoga pencils.)
14. “Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart—one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.” | M. J. Ashton
It's easy to yell at whoever left their stuff on the stairs (Whiskey, my Golden Retriever, is so guilty of this). It's tempting to snap at the cashier who forgot to take the security tag off of your new $200 swimsuit (I've actually been that cashier before...). It's second nature to do a little eye rolling here and there—when parents get a little too micro-managey, when someone in the group project shows up late, or when the professor announces a pop quiz. It's easy to tear people down in these small but significant ways. But you know what's even more significant? Nurturing. Flick the little devil off of your shoulder (à la childhood cartoons) and resist the urge to snap/yell/gossip/whatever. Channel that energy for good. Build someone up. Listen without judgment. Help someone out even when it's inconvenient. To think someone could be left better after meeting you is a very powerful thing.
15. “Settling for less makes you feel less. It actually makes your energy smaller. Deciding to not settle might mean you have to wait longer or challenge the typical, but if you are passionate about what you are creating with your life, the way always appears.” | D. Claudat
Settling and apathy are dangerous drugs. As humans, we're often tempted by the safer option, the easier and faster option, or the higher-paying-yet-horrendously-boring option. Boys, jobs, universities, internships—we're seduced by Settling's instant gratification. But if that boy/job/university/internship isn't everything you've ever dreamed of, pull on your patience pants and be productive in the meantime. Patience is wicked tough, but often worth it.
16. “Be with someone who doesn’t make you want to check your phone.” | Unknown
This is SO big for me. I am so tired of going to dinner with friends only to look around the table and see everyone on their phone. While it feels natural to do a little Twitter scrollin' or to edit Instagram pictures right then and there, this actually sends the message that what's on your little screen is much more important or entertaining than those actually sitting next to you. Be with the people you are physically with at gatherings. When I can feel my phone vibrating in my pocket, it takes 110% of my mind-over-matter powers to ignore. But relationships are worth the agony of missing some notifications. Give people your attention. Be fully present. Set an example for others. And to be frank, when it comes to friends or relationships, you shouldn't even want to check your phone around them! This past weekend I was in San Diego with my two best friends, and although we snapped a few pictures at brunch, we all waited to post until after. Easy peasy.
17. “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” | M. Dell
It feels good to be the smart one. My former university required all students to take a general ed religion class, and since I was a religion major and was bound by this requirement, I excelled times 43,855,245 in the intro-level course. The professor would use my essay as a class example after every exam and everyone wanted to be my partner on group quizzes (though I don't think they even knew my name...boohoo). While it bolstered my self-esteem and confidence in the classroom, pridefulness snuck into the mix. Luckily, every subsequent course had me working harder and harder, humbled when the material no longer came easily to me. That's where the meaningful conversations, stacks of pored-over books, and the feeling of being so small in such a vast chasm of knowledge come into play. That's where the growth happens. (Growth seems to be the theme in this season of life.)
18. “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. To be light and frolicsome. Improbably and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” | M. Oliver
I don't know if it's possible to change personality types while growing up, or if the "Type A and B" theory is even accurate, but I've always been a B: creative, reflective, and easygoing. By my second year of college, I was the hybrid mix: creative, reflective, driven, perfectionist, workaholic. It may have been the increased responsibilities or newfound passion in school that led me into Type A territory, but recently I've been missing my old "go-with-the-flow" nature. I think what I've gleaned from this is to enjoy every moment of youth—to say yes to adventures, be willing to go exploring, and get out of the monotonous comfort zone. As the 1600s proverb goes, "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" (James Howell).
19. “The greatest cruelty is our casual blindness to the despair of others.” | J. Straczynski
I received an email once from one of those people. If you've ever read the comment sections on YouTube videos, controversial blog posts, news articles, or celebrity Instagram photos, you'll know exactly what kind of person I mean—they hang around on the internet, search for a vulnerable target, and hit them (hard) with sharp words and painful phrases. The email snarled with harsh opening words, going on to insult me in ways I didn't know possible. The final line of the email? He or she wanted to kindly let me know that no one cares about my stupid, boring life, and that I should really look into writing about something important for once. Particularly the starving kids in Africa. Ouch. Swallowing these words wasn't easy. That kind of speech, funneled to a stranger behind the safety and anonymity of a computer screen, is inhumane. This insensitive, remorseless email was cyber-bullying. I'd hate to sound like a Disney Channel commercial, taking about the dangers of the internet and why bullying is wrong, but my gosh, it's hard to really grasp how much words can hurt until it's directed at you. This experience left me with a whole lot of empathy for anyone who has dealt with cyber-bullying before. And again, it was a character-building experience. With 7.046 billion people on the planet, not everyone is going to like you or me. Pick your battles, say your prayers for the bullies, and "write hard and clear about what hurts" (Hemingway).
20. "To live content with small means—to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich—to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart—to bear all cheerfully—do all bravely, await occasions—never hurry; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony." | W. E. Channing
Mr. Channing [note: not Channing Tatum—think 200 years older] is a smart fellow. Not because he was a Harvard grad in the 17th/18th century, but because of his awareness of what's actually meaningful and essential in life. I feel like present-day society is gluttonous, driven by validation, entertainment, and shock-value. And it's easy to be seduced by fancy cars, night life, and lavish clothes—but does it really matter? They're just things. Man-made things. The real treasures are in the moments, the relationships, the laughs and tears, and the things that GOD cares about.
Following the lead of Jesus has proven difficult lately, as I find myself tangled deep beneath all of my selfish wants and wishes. I strain my ears to listen for His quiet call, instead hearing only my own anxious mind firing off thoughts at 100 miles per hour. It's so humbling to think you're headed one way--and to be completely confident about said direction--only to be wrong.
In this time of gritty trust and blind belief, I'm realizing the strength of the poison that is doubt. It begins small--a second thought or a hesitant moment--and grows rapidly and wildly, flailing its limbs and rearing its head. Soon every decision is coated in the poison, attracting Doubt's dear friends, Anxiety, Fear, and Apathy. Together they make an unruly bunch, diluting trust and cutting out faith. They're wicked strong, wicked stubborn, and freaking annoying.
It feels like hiking at night.
I have my boots laced up and my flashlight in hand, but the beam only illuminates one small patch of the mountain at a time. If I get distracted by the foliage or animal noises, I could diverge from the path, ending up hopelessly lost. If I become too obsessed with the end goal, shining my flashlight way ahead of me, I will stumble and fall, or perhaps step on a friendly neighborhood rattlesnake. If my light stays at my feet with my eyes glued to the ground, I could take the wrong path, run headfirst into a branch, or just miss the beauty of looking up at the moon in the sky.
Balance is hard.
The biggest comfort in times of radical change or instability is knowing that God would never "throw you to the wolves" (unless you're David and the wolves are Lions... and even then He'll still be with you and protect you!). His right hand will guide you (see Psalms 139:9-10). Sometimes silence is His answer. Sometimes the answer is "not yet." Sarah was 90 when she gave birth to the son that God had promised to her and Abraham. She even laughed when the angel of the Lord told her she'd have a son (Genesis 21:6), but Sarah was patient and God was faithful. And so when Sarah was 90 (and Abraham was 100), she gave birth to Isaac--whose name means "laughter" in Hebrew. Besides, worrying is literally betting against God. Stay hopeful. Stay joyful.
P.S.: Welcome to my new site! After using Wordpress for 2 years, it was time for a change. Whether you are new to my blog or have been reading my thoughts for awhile, click below to learn more about who I am and what I do.
Sometimes life doesn’t feel real until the bags are packed and unpacked, the boxes are taped up and ripped open, and you’re sitting in the middle of the bedroom floor wondering how you’ve accumulated so many socks and realize that one is missing—potentially stuck to the wall of the dryer in your old apartment 1,700 long and looping miles away—and there is no possible way you will ever see that little pink Nike sock again.
Sometimes life doesn’t feel real until you have one of those trippy moments looking in the mirror, when you really see yourself and realize "this is me... This is my life. I'm a person. I'm living" (Does everyone have these moments? Nope? Just me?)
Life has a way of having long days and short years, with months that drag on and decades that whip by faster than you can say “Beanie Babies” (or Furby, Skip-It, BopIt, or HitClips—I swear we’re still in the ‘90s). I still write 2012 on the headings of my school papers, which was the year I graduated high school (I’m currently a junior in college), not able to digest the fact that we’re almost halfway through 2014.
It didn’t feel real, buckled into my little hybrid, the back window plastered with my sorority letters and the back seat stacked high with Tupperware bins and random, single shoes (we got to the point where my car was so full that we had to stuff clothes and shoes into every pocket of air available—very Tetris-esque). It didn’t feel real as we drained giant cups of sweet tea in Texas, Sonic slushies in New Mexico, and In’n’Out pink lemonade in Arizona (such a California tease!). Even the lease paperwork, endless roadside gas stations/rest stops, getting whistled at by scary truck drivers, and the multiple hotels didn’t really solidify the fact that I was leaving Texas for good.
The road signs kept me updated as to how many thousands, hundreds, and tens of miles we had until sweet California welcomed warmly (literally), but even the giant blue “Welcome to California!” sign in a dusty corner of my favorite state didn’t make it feel real. I wasn’t reciting some sort of Texas eulogy, or caught in the thick of emotions from goodbye and change and a new hello. I was just driving.
It wasn’t till I was sitting on my bedroom floor, exercising my inner obsessive-compulsive, domestic, perfectionist goddess, surrounded by socks and sorority shirts and a pair of brown leather cowboy boots, that I began to physically feel one chapter of life closing and the next opening. It wasn’t a sad feeling at all—just a sweet reminder that God’s hand is guiding me every day, and that I’m back in California for His purpose and by His grace.
I went to a beach bonfire with a friend last week.
After digging a fire pit in the sand (disclaimer: there was no sign saying it was illegal...although the cops showed up eventually), the fire was crackling and the s’mores ingredients were passed around (including S’moreos—s’mores Oreos—my new friend’s creation). After prayer, we all ended up singing worship songs led by a girl with a guitar and a voice that sounded “somewhere between Elvis [...or female equivalent] and angels,” to quote Hannah Brencher. With bare toes buried in the sand, a disposable camera in hand (I’m bringing them back), and the mingling song of the ocean and Jesus-loving voices, I felt the loving sovereignty of God, as he began to tie together all of the loose ends and frayed edges of my life, giving me new adventures, new hope, and new purpose.
IT'S FINALS SEASON.
Laced with energy drinks, late-night swipes into the library and printers running dry of ink, finals season is the microcosm of “real world” deadlines crammed into a two-week period.
It’s like the volume dial of the stress radio was crank, crank, cranked to full blast, then broken off and stuck in position. So here we are as college students, with broken pencils, messy hair and under-eye circles, fueling caffeine addictions and nursing (or numbing) our tired minds.
Although I’m not a late night studier (I’d rather get up at 5am—perhaps a rare trait in my age group), I fit every other finals week stereotype—sleepy, swollen eyes, clothes that I fell asleep in, and a textbook never leaving the crook of my arm.
I am a school person. A perfectionist. An “oh my gosh, I got an A-” kind of gal (although I would never admit it in a classroom setting—people who verbalize that really test my patience). Being so “schooly” has its pros (good grades) and cons (a bundle of nasty stress breakdowns/freak outs/meltdowns leading up to finals week). I make flashcards and rewrite notes, annotate books and fill the pages with sticky note flags on important bits of information.
And side note: that's okay. That's who I am. I think a lot of college students think it's cool to laugh about failing classes, brag about not studying, or joke about not even having the textbooks. And I say: It's seriously cool to be smart. It's not something to be embarrassed about.
But... Even though I usually have a good turn out once finals week is over, I’m often left a little wounded physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I’m so hard on myself that my emotions are usually frayed, and my self-reflecting thoughts aren’t exactly the kindest. My brain turns to mush (or is hollow with a dull humming noise vibrating off of the empty caverns). I’m sleep-deprived, exercise-deprived, and nutrition-deprived (real nutrition—my finals week diet of protein bars and water doesn’t count). And worst of all, when I get to this broken (but academically excellent) point, I’ve neglected my relationship with Christ.
It’s so easy for me to sink into the depths of my schoolwork, disappearing completely into projects, presentations, papers, and study guides. I get so stressed out and mad at myself for not remembering that phosphorous makes red blood cells with folate and that the Rastafarian religion stemmed from the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon (I always think it's David because he is associated with Bathsheba...close enough). I forget to brush my teeth (eww kidding...kinda) or my hair. I barely remember to take deep breaths, let alone pray.
But I’ve been realizing something this time around, when my stress is greater than ever before and when the two weeks to finals also means two weeks left in the state of Texas: God is great and I am not. Riding the rush of a good grade is sweet for a few moments, until the to-do list piles back up, there’s another test on the desk in front of you, and you’re trying to handle everything on your own. I’m realizing during this finals season how much I need God. I need someone to talk to, someone to love me when I can’t remember the stomach enzyme that breaks down lipids, and someone to calm me down when my computer crashes.
His omnipresence is a great comforter—literally a giant, soft, squishy blanket wrapped around my shoulders. With Him I’m finding the peace and joy in this finals season, and in these last two weeks at this school. I feel blessed to be able to study exactly what I love, to have a cozy apartment (with a fireplace DVD playing on loop), and to have a family that knows I’m doing my best no matter what the outcome. He keeps me from falling. He holds my hand. And sometimes, when it’s the end of the school day but there’s still more to do, he just carries me. I’m thankful for a God like this. He is my source of strength and perseverance, my cheerleader (that’s a visual), and my Heavenly Father. And of course, knowing that in two little weeks I’ll be hopping in my hybrid and cruising back to California is a giant motivator.
Joyfully in Christ,
“The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving. I didn't want to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing any fuss or consequences, and then not stop running until I reached Greenland.” | Elizabeth Gilbert
God is doing some pretty radical stuff in my life--challenging, humbling, life-changing, heart-opening, anxiety-inducing stuff.
Every day I am finessed and shaped and molded by God's hand. I have been growing, blooming, and evolving. I'll think my life is headed one direction, and God smiles, throws his head back, and laughs warmly: "My child," he says, "you're going the wrong way!" And he helps me readjust. He holds my hand a lot. We take baby steps. We talk constantly about the concept of direction... especially lately.
My best friend texted me this quote last week, which I knew was God's doing: "I think God passes by me a lot, and it serves to show me the direction he's going. We don't always know where he's headed or what to expect along the way. But I think direction is the point, the part, and whole of it...Plus, I think God knows that if I found out more than just the direction He was going, I'd probably try to beat Him there." | Bob Goff, Love Does
My life path has been a fragmented yet loopy journey from point A to point B—I’ve never done well with simple or linear.
When I came into college as a freshman, I was a little 18-year-old with too-dark hair and too much makeup, wanting nothing more than to study fashion merchandising and have a "real" college experience. I wanted to work for a magazine—TeenVogue was the goal—and live in New York City or LA. I went to mixers and parties and formals, held a can of beer in my hand just to blend in, and spent more time on my phone than in my physical surroundings. With my heart stapled to my sleeve, I was completely consumed with the thought of southern boys. I thought they would be so wonderful—so gentlemanly—opening doors and calling me miss or ma'am with a crooning, twangy accent. They would all sound exactly like the nonexistent lovechild of Scotty McCreery and Josh Turner.
Fast forward 365 days, and I’m in the first semester of my sophomore year. My halfhearted study of fashion, coupled with a wonderful Religious Studies professor and newfound love for my freshman bible class (general ed religion requirement—private Christian school, mind you) leads me to change my path completely. No longer was I studying lighting, consumers, textiles, or illustration—suddenly it was second semester, and I was immersed in Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions.
I traded my sketching pencils for the Torah, fabric swatches for karma, dharma, and bodhisattvas. The designer names on my flashcards became deities, transliterated words, and meticulous sketches of the afterlife (this week's notes are peppered with drawings of the Mormon afterlife, beginning with the premortal world, stretching to the celestial kingdom). No longer was I examining fabric under a microscope or identifying it by its warp or waft (which is truly such a pain). Instead, I was examining relationships, ethics, and doctrines through the lens of a scholar of religion.
Suddenly I found myself on the floor of my little apartment, surrounded by cracked open textbooks and thick stacks of notes, exploring the complexities of the question: "what is religion?" and loving every soul-searching moment. It's a native category, meaning it's so elemental to life and society that people feel like they know what it means without having to define it. But at the same time, it's like explaining colors to the lifelong blind, or describing how water tastes.
Fast forward one more year.
I’ll be a junior, but no longer in Texas.
My fragmented yet looping path has led me back to the place where my heart overflows—California. It’s been a long process, a quiet process, and a painful process. I believe, with every cell in my body and hair on my head, that God brought me to Texas for spiritual, emotional, and academic boot camp. It was here, and only here, that he could turn this little freshman girl, purposefully spilling warm beer into potted plants at parties to make the cup gradually empty, into a girl with a heart for philosophy and religion, dedicated to meditation and prayer. He knew that Texas could be the only setting for this radical, internal, gritty, and graceful change. It was here when I finally learned to listen to Him and to my own soul.
I had become so apathetic and victim-like. I saw my circumstances as permanent, not temporary. Texas was the place of my first B- (in a class called “fashion illustration,” of all things), my first severe tornado warning (yesterday, actually), my first time being set up on a date (blind dates work better in movies and books), and my first time getting 100% on a science midterm (only after a weekend of crying in the bathtub with my flashcards and eating my feelings in chocolate chips).
I loved studying religion, so I knew my sharp academic shift was part of His plan.
Academics aside, everyone talked of my school like it was this magical and beautiful utopia. And although the campus is gorgeous, I didn’t think these people had ever seen palm trees, tasted an acai bowl, or fell asleep on the sand with a book on their face. I didn’t think these people had ever wandered through a vineyard, climbed a mountain so lush and emerald that even Ireland is green with envy. I didn’t think these people have done yoga on a paddleboard, picked citrus from their backyards, or had a pool party birthday for every single year of their life (and every year, the wet footprints on the pavement, cannonball splashes and homemade birthday cake were even better than the last). I didn’t think these people had surfboards and boogie boards and skim boards in their garages, or had a guitar for home and a guitar for the beach, its wood coated with sand and mottled from saltwater. I didn't think these people knew California like I did. And that was okay. Maybe all of that wasn't magic to them. Who was I to assume that my paradise was theirs as well?
Maybe what was magical to them were the honey-leather cowboy boots, the buzz of the crowd on game day, all yelling and screaming at the ref in unison. Maybe these people were captivated by tall, sweating glasses of sweet tea and line dancing past midnight, hunting on the weekends, and tailgating in the back of a truck. Maybe to them, the Texas sky was a symphony, the clouds wringing themselves out at the end of the day—pink and lavender watercolors dripping down from the atmosphere. Maybe the humid nights and bright stars, the country music, and lake days made their hearts overflow with love and pride.
And that was okay too.
One of the sweetest blessings here in Texas was my book club—a small, deep-thinking collection of happy spirits, each with a dog-eared copy of Eat, Pray, Love. Unbeknownst to these girls, our tiny, monthly book club helped me come to terms with the adventures waiting at my own fingertips. This handful of creative, Elizabeth-Gilbert-loving souls, along with Elizabeth herself (via her book) gave me the courage I needed to pursue true joy.
“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.” | Elizabeth Gilbert; Eat, Pray, Love
And so I’m traveling for it and swimming to it. I’m headed back to my Californian roots where my soul can run free through nature and the sunshine can warm the tips of my toes. I’m headed back to a gentle yoga practice, uncharted beaches (for I won’t be in my well-loved yet thoroughly explored San Diego this time around), and a continuation of my religious studies, with the addition of philosophy. I’m headed back to a barefoot heart, farmers’ markets, and a strand of sea-glass-encrusted possibilities.
As Rumi said,
“Respond to every call that excites your spirit.”
And so I’m responding. I’m taking my fragmented, looping, beautiful path to California. Find out what excites your spirit. Seek peace and happiness and chase it--literally run to it and for it and alongside of it. If you don't like where you are or where you're going, pick up your roots and the hems of your pant legs and go somewhere else. Pursue all of the world's light and love. You are your own limitations.
(Extra) Joyfully in Christ-
It wasn't the first time I found myself being yelled at in Sudanese Arabic.
Actually, it definitely was.
I wasn’t sure if the taxi driver was yelling at me to get out of the taxi—perhaps he wasn’t available—or to get in and close the door. So there I was, perched in an uncomfortable squat, half-sitting in his taxi, half-standing on the pavement. Eventually he managed the word “door” in English, and motioned to the phone clenched to his ear. Enlightened but thoroughly annoyed, I closed the door and sat back in the grimy taxi van seat, embarking on my overpriced journey from the airport to my college campus.
Once he got off the phone, he told me that he was from Sudan. It had been his wife calling from overseas, so he couldn’t hang up when I climbed into his taxi. He was here in Texas and driving this van to support his family back in Africa. At one point he fluidly shifted from English to Sudanese Arabic, forgetting that I was just a little English (-speaking) girl—pun intended. In fragmented sentences and broken English, he talked about war, uprisings, and water. When I got to my apartment that night, and took a drawn-out shower and left the sink running too long, I thought of Mr. Taxi Driver’s wife, and a Sudanese water purification struggle.
Sometimes my world gets a little too small.
As it shrinks, my own problems metastasize. My rapidly narrowing perspective makes running out of coffee into a disaster, or an imperfect outfit or homework assignment into a tragedy. Sometimes it takes a little bit of exaggeration to make a point. Obviously these things are not disasters, tragedies, or heartbreaks, but I will sheepishly admit that I let extremely mild annoyances turn into mildly extreme problems.
It's like the love-hate relationship I have with my major.
I love my major because I’m a thinker. My brain loves to finesse complex ideas and break down multifaceted concepts. I’m passionate about happiness—the science of it, the thoughts behind it, and the way to get to it. Through my major, I learn about the Buddhist “Six Perfections” that a bodhisattva must practice to become enlightened. I love relationships and examining all that comes with them. I can explore the tensions between the four branches of Judaism, or the many Christian denominations. It’s fascinating to me—I devour the words in my religion textbook like they were tiny, chocolate-laced pastries doused in powdered sugar or sprinkled with sea salt. But other times... I hate my major; studying other people and cultures is a harsh reminder of how small my own world and problems are. I’m glad for this wake up call, but it doesn’t always feel good.
I’m passionate about so many things—healthy oceans and beaches (Surfrider Foundation), nutrition, rainforest preservation, and animal treatment—so how is it that my fading tan and minor stress breakout were all I really thought about today? The older I get, the more aware I am of my little world. I want to preserve it, nurturing and protecting my “innocent” mind, and staying safe within the boundaries of a white picket fence and trimmed rose hedges. At the same time, my empathetic nature makes me hurt for impoverished people I will never meet, abused pups I will never play with, and oil-drenched oceans I will never visit.
And so here I am, back in the uncomfortable position. I am half-sitting in a taxi that promises to show me a beautiful, corrupt world, and half-standing on the pavement, where life is safe and feet are rooted to the ground.
My anxious, wandering spirit craves both comfort and chaos. My feet and heart and mind want to roam; my body doesn't want to get out of bed. And here you are, feeling the same way. Or maybe you're rolling your eyes, yelling at me through the screen to buy a plane ticket to Sudan--I received an email a few months ago asking me if I had ever stopped to think about the children in Africa, because certainly that is the only meaningful issue in the world. I beg to differ. Although I feel stuck, unsure if I want to venture into the world or stay with my feet on the ground, I know that meaning can be found in daily life. Though some of my worries today were laughable (how did my leggings get so see-through?!), I think you and I can really make some positive change happen here. Here. Where we are. Now. Gandhi said: "In a gentle way, you can shake the world." He was right. Ask someone how they're doing--how they arereally, genuinely doing. Challenge yourself to not engage in gossip. Send someone a letter if their corner of the world is feeling a little broken and gloomy. Hop off the social media and do something productive. Go to the beach and pick up every styrofoam fragment and bottle you can find (recycle when applicable, of course). Buy someone sunflowers. Talk to the cashier (working in retail taught me that small talk is, indeed, meaningful). Find something you're passionate about and pursue it. Do something today that is productive and positive--something that helps someone other than yourself. Besides, those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.
It all began by being yelled at in Sudanese Arabic.
Joyfully in Christ,
Pinterest is my sun and moon and angelic, devilish, omnipresent companion.
I usually love Pinterest, gathering recipes and craft ideas with each swift scroll of the page. I choose who I follow wisely, almost babying myself to ensure I don’t accidentally stumble across a fragmented, sleazy corner of the internet. I follow a joyful, deep thinking, creative crowd, peppered with fashionistas, writers, and chefs.
Pinterest is my siren call and my lotus flower. For those not studying literature, Homer’s Odyssey explores the Greek mythology of the lotus-eaters on an island off of North Africa. The lotus flower was a narcotic; if a person consumed a lotus blossom, he would drift into the dreamiest, softest, most lethargic sleep imaginable.
Pinterest inspires me, but entices me, pulling me deeper and deeper through the computer screen until I am practically inside the website, losing sight of my surroundings completely. For some people it’s Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Pinterest is my bittersweet bride (groom).
And then the other day I saw it. Tucked away in a little corner of my newsfeed was a picture of a handwritten quote. It looked humble and simple, but those are often the best kinds, so I clicked. I wish I hadn’t.
I knew it wasn’t mean spirited by nature. I knew it wasn’t an attack on me. I knew all of these things. So why did it feel like I was kneed in the stomach? As a writer who loves taking pictures and making art, I felt convicted and attacked. Contrary to what I thought about myself, or what my parents, friends and professors thought about me, I felt like my passions were no longer legitimate. I felt as though my words and paints and pictures just swirled into the creative efforts of the rest of the right-brained world, muddling and mixing until nothing of worth was left.
It’s like when you mixed every hue from your kindergarten watercolor set back in the utopian days of naptime and snack time. Your teacher told you that you’d get a swampy brownish-black if you mixed them all together, but your little five-year-old heart still believed that you would, indeed, be left with a rainbow color. I felt like the five-year-old—the world was saying “I told you so,” and I felt cheated of the respect I thought I deserved for at least trying to be innovative.
It’s like how (seemingly) everyone has a blog.
Everyone and their mother have a blog—often literally (pssst... I know “their” is incorrect in that sentence. It’s a cliché... work with me here!). When I began The Little English Girl in high school, blogging wasn’t foreign, but it certainly was not cool or mainstream (or maybe it was cool, and I just wasn't "in the know"). These days, my Facebook newsfeed (when I did have a Facebook, anyway) is littered with the same Buzzfeeds and Gifs and trivial articles as usual, but the feed is no longer sprinkled with blogs—it’s saturated with them.
When I began to see this influx within my own friends and acquaintances, I felt a little jaded. I didn’t want to be spiteful, but blogging was my thing—wasn’t it? I quickly realized that being possessive over blogging illustrated the same irrationality of being possessive over painting, using Pinterest, or once being a cheerleader and competitive swimmer. All of these things were “my” passions, but did that mean I would be offended the next time someone picked up a paintbrush, pinned a picture, did a toe touch, or dove into the water?
As for the legitimacy of my passions, I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t want to turn to my parents. I knew they would tell me that yes; I am more than legitimate and enough. They would tell me that I am their gifted, creative, sensitive daughter—yes Rachel, you are special.I didn’t want to turn to God (out of my own stupid stubbornness). I knew He would tell me the same thing... except... He didn’t. Even though I didn’t give my insecurities to Him, He still knew my thoughts. He knew that telling me I was special would only fall upon deaf ears—the idea that “if everyone is special then no one is” was the entire crux of my argument. He knew I wasn’t ready to dive into the thick of the topic, and so he soothed my mind in the moment and I went on with my day.
It wasn’t until today that I got my answer.
This month, my book club and I are exploring the novel Eat Pray Love, dipping our toes in the cultures of Italy, India, and Indonesia. I have read this book a handful of times for a handful of reasons. I really connect with Liz Gilbert’s writing style. Equal parts witty and insightful, each line drips with subtle humor and beautiful language. I also connect to Liz as a person (maybe a little more than I care to admit). Her longing to escape the mediocre and mundane speaks to my own dreaming heart. Her personal depth, need for support, empathy and affection (I think at one point she refers to herself as somewhere between a Golden Retriever and a barnacle), and her love of the little things in life mirrors my own spirit. It’s a thoroughly wonderful book overflowing with whimsy and experience.
Reading the book for the 4th, maybe 5th time, proved deeply satisfying. Even though I know the characters and plotline by heart, I began to unearth some really interesting bits of narrator commentary that I hadn’t previously noticed. This one, I knew, was God’s doing:
“Because the world is so corrupted, misspoken, unstable, exaggerated and unfair, one should trust only what one can experience with one's own senses, and THIS makes the senses stronger in Italy than anywhere in Europe. This is why, Barzini says, Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captain of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent opera singers, conductors, ballerinas, courtesans, actors, film directors, cooks, tailors... In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
And with that, stitching together words, smearing paint on canvas, building a lyrical sanctuary through verses and music, and taking pictures of His creation is 100% legitimate. I no longer had to (have to) bitterly envy those who posses different gifts and talents than me—the finance majors, engineers, mathematicians, and chemists, fluent in Latin and fortified with intelligence and prestige. My right-brained, religion-and-English-studying mind need not fret no longer.
Stitching together syllables and examining theological underpinnings is important to the world because it is important to me. Though I am a stark contrast to my biochemistry, computer science, business and finance-laced family, creating beautiful things—as sometimes only beauty can be trusted—is more than enough.
P.S.: You may or may not have noticed I no longer utilize social media. More on that later. If you'd like to contact me, follow the "write me" tab at the top of the page and fill out an email form.
Being San Diego bred, my soul is naturally infused with those hippie, sea-salt-encrusted, save-the-whales, be-one-with-the-earth type of beliefs.
“You’re so Cali,” people in Texas tell me.
I cringe and stare down at my mint Vans or chocolate brown Rainbows. Never say Cali in my presence. It is truly not a real word, but it is the best indicator of who is not from California. I can just feel all of my California readers fervently nodding their heads along to the rhythm of this paragraph. Cali is a horrible, horrible word. But alas, we are all rooted to different corners of the Earth, and so things like this are forgivable (when I push my little California attitude aside).
I cannot, however, push my California soul aside.
I am a free spirit, a dreamer, and a happy soul seeker. I crave sunshine as others do richly hued wine. The ocean nourishes, recharges, and refreshes me; it is my medication and meditation. Wading to my knees or slicing through waves, the ocean is everything—a place for solitude, gathering, thinking, laughing. The ocean is core work, balance and breathing techniques, subtle scares of seaweed around the ankle, and melting layers of sunscreen. The water is liquid magic. It is like this icy radiance that swirls around my body, enveloping me in sloppy, lapping hugs and salty kisses. Navy water is stitched with white foam, spilling over from wave to wave.
Overcome by the brilliance of creation, I think of the artist Himself: “The Earth is full of His unfailing love. By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of His mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars. He puts the deep into storehouses.” (Psalms 33:5-7)
I am (unabashedly) a Christian. I am also a religion major, and so it is my “job” to examine a multitude of religious traditions utilizing epoche, a way to bracket off personal biases. Being so firm in my faith and my adoration of Christ, I am able to see other people’s religious traditions as just that—other people’s religious traditions, which neither offend nor threaten me or my beliefs. There are certainly practices that I am uncomfortable with or don’t understand, but the beauty of Christ is that he loves everyone, so I strive to cultivate the same loving, open mindset when I explore these traditions.
As a scholar of religion, I delight in drawing similarities between Buddha’s teachings (500 years before Jesus), and the teachings of Christ—my rock and salvation and gentle shepherd. One of the things I love about Buddhism is the Eightfold Path, as part of the Fourth Noble Truth (the path to the end of suffering). The Eightfold Path is divided into three sections:
- Mindfulness: Meditation practice
- Virtue: Morals and being a good little earthling and buddy to others
- Wisdom: Learning, blooming, growing, and evolving every day
The other thing I love about Buddhism is the strong emphasis on the Earth—preserving it, loving it, nurturing it. Way back when (and potentially still in some areas), Buddhist monks and nuns were not allowed to travel during rainy season, for fear that they would accidentally step on insects and other creatures lodged in the mud (the same is true in Jainism; Jains believe all sentient beings have “jivas,” or living souls).
“Everything in the universe is pulsating and vibrating – nothing is really standing still. The sound Om, when chanted, vibrates at the frequency of 432 Hz, which is the same vibrational frequency found throughout everything in nature. As such AUM is the basic sound of the universe; so by chanting it we are symbolically and physically tuning in to that sound and acknowledging our connection to all other living beings, nature and the universe.”
The way I see it, living beings, nature, and the universe are all created by God. This element of creation binds us in relationship with the Earth—just as God cares for us, he cares for how the lilies grow.
And so, in a sort of "Beach Buddha" manner, I leave you with this nugget of wisdom (let’s say crystal of wisdom, and make me even more of a hippie soul):
“With each inhale, lift your heart closer to the sun. With each exhale, root your feet more deeply in the ground (or perhaps... the sand).”
Be in this world, not of it. Believe in the magic of creation. Be gentle to the earth. And while you’re at it, eat wholesome and clean foods, seeds instead of grains, lots of leafy greens, and meet me at the beach.
Joyfully in Christ-
(And happily en route to California for spring break)
"When I look at the galaxies on a clear night--when I look at the incredible brilliance of creation, and think that this is what God is like, instead of feeling intimidated and diminished by it, I am enlarged--I rejoice that I am part of it." - Madeleine L'Engle
I needed a change. I felt restless but rooted; each subsequent day overflowed with equal parts urgency and apathy. How had I let myself become so entangled in monotony? I was reluctant to unclench my palms, letting go of my familiar, comforting, dull, maddening routine.
I tried to push the feeling back down, but it kept sprouting up again. Tireless and consistent, the feeling that I needed to change something felt as if God were knocking on the caverns of my mind, shouting joyfully, “Wake up! Wake up, my daughter! Taste and see the world! I can give you a new perspective if you simply ask me. Wake up, sweet daughter!”
& so I got up.
I flung open the windows, and blasted John Mayer (the man of my dreams—that “beautiful, tortured soul”). I pulled a few pots and pans on tiptoe from the cupboard, and gathered ingredients. I brought water to a rolling boil, and added pasta. In another pan, I began making a humble, homemade sauce with thick diced tomatoes and little bunches of minced garlic. I moved all of the furniture in the adjacent living room to the edges of the walls, gifting me with luscious floor space. I piled blankets and pillows on the carpet, filled a glass with water and ice and lemon, and put on my favorite “playclothes.”
The breeze drifted through the wide-open windows, as the curtains snapped joyfully in the wind and the sauce bubbled deliciously on the stove. Something about the simple act of moving the furniture and letting in the Earth’s breath made me feel like my little cottage-y apartment was completely new. For a lingering moment, the ordinary—my little herb garden, the guitar jauntily propped against the wall, and the rollout piano stretched across the floor—was thrilling and novel and fresh.
It’s easy to drift into Tedium’s grasp; she gluttonously laps up every drop of novelty, and robs us of our happiness. It's especially easy for students to slip into routine--a huge chunk of our lives is scheduled out and penciled in, neglecting spontaneity.
We have our favorite spot in the library, that one food that we have at least 3 times a week, and the shirt we seem to wear every day. Even the Friday Night-ers are adamant in the order that they “hit the bars.” Routine is a college thing. We aren’t mindful about the food we consume, the conversations we have, or how long we sleep. This heedless “auto-pilot” mode leaves us flighty and distracted, or stressed when the test we were “meaning to study for” is suddenly staring maliciously up at us from the desk.
There is little time for real whimsy or exploration. We wake up—three or four alarms later—and roll over to check Facebook, Twitter, texts, email, and Instagram in tandem, a faithful servant to connectivity. We spend a few moments sitting on the bathroom counter and staring in shock at our reflection (raccoon eyes, knotted hair, a zit, a weird cheek indentation from sleeping strangely...).
Climbing back into my beddish, blankety ocean between classes is no longer a cozy treat. Naps don’t connote restfulness or relaxation, but exhaustion and negligence. Packing a snack to enjoy during long day of schooling no longer alludes to elementary school lunches (sandwich with the crust cut off, veggies in a baggie). Lipstick and perfume and a swipe of mascara no longer wink of date nights or dinners. I am thrilled by these things when they happen rarely; routine unpacks pleasure when small joys become daily actions. I’m extremely analytical and introspective, so when I began to dismantle my feelings of apathy (basically just a case of the “blah’s”), I realized how many other areas of my life echoed the same passive, lethargic, indifference (more “blah’s). The biggest one broke my heart—I'd forgotten the magic of creation.
When was the last time you looked up at the stars and thought, “God made those, in all of their fiery, interplanetary wonder, and he still made me”? Or when was the last time you even looked at the stars?
I am broken and sinful, easily discouraged, and self-indulgent. There are very few days when I feel quite as radiant as the celestial bodies, and even fewer days when I feel as significant or purposeful. Stars just know what to do—they are kindled, then burn and shine for trillions of years, illuminating our backyard campouts, guiding sailors home safely, and proclaiming the place of Christ’s birth. And me? I go to school. I eat lunch. I swim, run, or walk. I sleep. How can I even compare to God’s mighty creation?
This is the magnificent part—we need not be intimidated. We can rejoice simply because we are a part of it (Madeleine L'Engle). Neither tedium nor apathy can erase the marvel of creation. Nothing can wipe away my astonishment that we are special elements of a macrocosmic masterpiece. Routine will still attempt to steal my joy and hamper my productivity. Monotony will still seek to blanket my purpose, but just knowing that I am a small (yet meaningful) part of the brilliance of creation is enough for today.
“And so you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.” | V. Shoffstall, After a While
I’ve always loved February 14th. I like pink and chocolate (& pink chocolate), flowers and stacks of love-laden cards.
I loved Valentine’s Day in elementary school. It was so exciting and so sweetly innocent. We would all cover little shoeboxes with wrapping paper and carry them proudly in the crook of our elbows, other arm lugging candy-stuffed valentines (one for everyone in the class—that was the rule) in a giant plastic baggie. The teacher would give us an entire afternoon to parade around the classroom, dropping candy into each other’s boxes, simultaneously nibbling heart-shaped cookies and giggling over “who likes who.”
The best was the first grade. My mom sewed me a beautiful dress with a swishy hemline to wear to school on Valentine’s Day. There were puffy sleeves, white pearl buttons and little white hearts peppered on the red cotton. There was a special assembly that day, where the police came to talk about “fighting bad guys,” and I was privileged enough to be picked to sit in the police car (as an envious crowd looked on). It really was the best day ever.
In later years, when my perfect little dress was passed onto a neighbor or folded neatly in a box, I still wore pink or red to school on February 14th, bringing with me a bulging bag of valentines and a huge smile.
I am a romantic when it comes to life, and unabashedly so. I have a soft and sensitive heart and a curious mind. I love making small moments special, and delighting in the little things—sunshine on the pavement, fresh-cut tulips, a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and tied with baker’s twine. If I could paint the interiors of my mind, it would be saturated with a happy and sunny yellow, with touches of seafoam green and big, joyful splashes of pink.
I love loving others and making small efforts to bring them joy. I love loving the little things in life. I love loving God because He is so gentle with me, and the Holy Spirit because it/He (let’s get theological, friends!) is what fills me with peace and joy and a zest for life when I make the conscious effort to both pray and praise. I love my parents and friends, professors and major. I love my beachy home and Texas sweet tea.
There are little pieces of my heart all over the world; I love a lot of people and places and things...but I don’t love romantic love.
I’ve always been comfortable being independent. I’ve dated, but never seriously, and singleness has always brought a genuine sense of relief. Once I settled into college life and had close friends and sorority sisters who were, gulp, engaged, my glorification of independence started to chip and crumble. Did I need someone else? I was, for the first time in a long time, questioning whether or not I was behind in the rat race of romance. My soft heart, once rooted in self-reliance, and saturated with patience, confidence, and trust in God’s plan, began to feel a little bit bruised and a lot a bit sad.
Once in college, wearing pink on Valentine’s Day didn’t bring me the same joy. While neighbors in the dorms received elaborate rose bouquets from loving boyfriends near and far, I had a brown paper box from my mom filled with treats and bits of home, and my family’s comforting words to cling to. I remember wondering how in the world everyone got so...grown up. Did I miss some crucial step in the aging process that would fashion me into an adult, stripping me of my pink-wearing, valentine-making, mom-loving nature?
The feeling lingered, drifting into the following year and colonizing the present moment. I already made valentines, and I still plan on wearing pink, but I have been dreading Friday’s festivities—or lack of festivities—for the past two weeks. My heart has been a little glum and (always) anxious. While I have always taken comfort in giving my other anxieties to God, turning to Him about romantic love felt unimportant and just embarrassing. Where would I begin?
Thank God for God. He saw me wrestling with my thoughts. “My daughter,” he said fondly, holding my hand. “I will love you more than any man—any boy—ever can. Run to my arms. If you let me, I can be all you need.” We talked for a while. It wasn’t pretty at first—there were frustrated prayers and anxious tears. When I no longer had words for the overflowing, overwhelming feelings that were bubbling up, I took pen to paper.
The ink became thread, stitching together letters to explain the feelings I couldn’t verbalize. The words became a sea, swirling around my knees. The pen became my avenue to God. The page became His invitation to the wild soiree in my heart.
And then He hugged me. My entire body felt like it had been soaked in a warm lavender bath, or enveloped by a blanket from the dryer, warmth still lingering. I no longer had to—have to—limp along alone. Since Sunday school, I’ve known he is “with” me, as He is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. What I didn’t grasp was that he is actually with me, a coalescence of the compassionate King and his humble servant. He is with me because his spirit fills me. It’s this radical, boundless love that reminds me I don’t need to be independent or romantically linked. I don’t have to be anything but His daughter. I am the daughter of a King who is not moved by the world. For my God is with me and goes before me. I do not fear because I am His.
“Dance with God and He'll let the perfect man cut in.”
Happy Valentine's Day (week?), friend.
...And now I feel like wearing pink.
“May I a small house and a large garden have, and a few friends, and many books, both true, both wise, and both delightful too.” –Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)
Had I been a belle of the 1600s, Abraham and I would have been dear friends. We would talk in our British accents and write poetry together as we wring out our tea bags over ancient china cups. Four hundred years later, I dream the same thing.
It’s a little beach cottage—pre-dawn grey shingles and off-white interior walls. I have a mint green Dutch door in the kitchen; the bottom half of the door can stay shut while the top half is flung open to let in the day. There is a fingernail of a porch in the front, a larger one in the back. The back porch shifts from wooden planks to a small stone path, from the small stone path to a wide sweep of gold sand and a wider stretch of navy water.
On the side of the house, there is a giant garden housed by a short, white picket fence. “The Earth laughs in flowers,” as the soil boasts of tulips and daffodils, irises and sunflowers.I harvest leafy heads of lettuce, deep-green kale and blood-red strawberries without the constraints of the seasons.There are cantaloupes and honeydews, peaches and little tangerines on small-trunked trees. In the summer there are sweet snap peas with crunchy, lime shells (resisting their usual winter routine), and big red tomatoes, thick and fleshy.
I slip my bare toes into sandals, and with a metal watering can in one arm and a whitewashed basket in the crook of the other, I disappear into the dew-studded, earthy embrace of my own big garden alongside my own little cottage.
I have lots of golden retrievers—all ages. There’s Edison and Sebastian, Franklin and Baylee and Ginger. I chase them around all day—through the garden, into the waves. We roll in the sand when the sun shines; when the stars emerge, we lay on the shore, burying our toes and fingers in the cool sand.
There’s a charming little town laced with history and salted air—a white post office, a craft store, an ice cream parlor with long, silver spoons. There’s a newspaper shop selling piping hot cinnamon donuts and a fire station that rings a lunch bell at noon every day (à la Gull Island). The church sits on a soft, grassy hill, fulfilling the metaphor by chance more than intentionality. On Thursdays there is a farmer’s market, tables overflowing with bushels of purple huckleberries and firm green ears of corn with buttery, yellow silk escaping from their tips.
Sometimes when I’m sad, I think of my little place—of my small house and large garden.
When it rains in Texas, I dream of the sunshine on my back as I sit on a kitchen stool, head bent over a watercolor painting. When tragedy breaks my heart and shakes my world—as the death of a friend did this week—I escape to my future life, familiar but uncharted. I know every street, every roundabout, every stitch on an apron that is yet to exist. I’m familiar with a routine I do not know. I savor the friendships I am yet to experience. I touch the hardback cover of a book that I am yet to publish. I love the man I am yet to meet, braid the hair of a child I’m yet to have, and breathe with a peace I am yet to know.
We all have our own little place wedged in a corner of our heart and forgotten in the cupboards of our mind. Sometimes we don’t even know we have a place that is all ours until life is all tears and sharp words, change and heartache, and we are already packing our mental bags and kicking off our theoretical shoes. We slip into a nap, drifting along with sleepy breaths and heavy eyelids to our special neighborhood or forest or village or lake front hidden in our heart.
When the to-do list has been recycled, my water bottle refilled and in the fridge,
When my clothes for tomorrow are set out, and the bath has been drained,
When my teeth have been brushed, and my wet hair has been combed,
When the comforter is turned down, and the blankets outstretched,
When my naked toes touch the sheets, and my head hits the pillow,
My mind tiptoes away from Texas and college and the sorrow of the week, and floats to my place—to my cottage on the seashore.
My place is where moonlight streams through the windowpane, and the glow of the stars tickle the glass. My place is where I wade knee-deep in the sea, running my fingertips along the surface of the water, happy to be a small fragment of His creation. My place is where my phone is a landline, the postman delivers on foot, the smiles are easy and genuine, the laughter is melodic and frequent, and my garden overflows.
Joyfully in Christ,
A year is a small bundle of moments, sewn into the pages of a calendar, and smudged in the top right corner of our history homework. There isn’t enough time or power in one little year for life to radically shift...right?
Every December 31st, teetering on the brink of a brand-new year, I think life can’t really change that much in 365 days. Entering into 2013, I felt that I had sipped every last drop of novelty that life had to offer; I was a second-semester freshman, and would later be a friend of summer, followed by a first-semester sophomore. By January 1st of my freshman year, the sheer newness of college was whittling away into a stale, albeit intellectually nourishing experience. My mind was still being stretched and pulled in the classroom (Italian classes, statistics, oh my!), but after a whirlwind of an autumn, I felt like Life could not possibly have new tricks up her sleeve.
Of course, I was dead wrong. Three small days of 2014 have gone by, gifting me a chance to quietly reflect on the path behind me, as I turn my sights to the yet-to-be. Below is a collection of lessons learned from 2013, some tender, some tough, some comic.
1. Being an introvert can be a blessing.
I really cannot do the topic justice with words when Kristen Hedges has already said it best: “I embrace my introversion with pride. Why? Because it’s awesome. All the best thinkers are introverts. In order to develop brilliant ideas and understand your place in the universe, you must turn inward. Meditate. You go on a solo journey into the very center of your heart, and cultivate a garden there. Then, you can spread your ideas and your creations to the world...Introverts are also incredible listeners. We are sensitive lovers. We’re caring, and nurturing, and we make lifelong friends. And the best part? We throw the world’s best double date game nights. Just don’t invite the whole block. So no, I don’t want to go to that party. Yes, I would rather stay home and scribble in a notebook. Yes, we are still friends. No, I’m not mad at you. You know what I would love to do? Get coffee. Or read next to each other. That sounds good.”
2. Bravely reject the norm.
Just because seemingly everyone is dressing up and going to the bars does not mean you (or I) have to. Don't feel sheepish just because you find joy in (very) different activities than everyone around you. Follow your passions and seek meaningful fellowship.
3. I really did not need my belly button pierced.
Growing up in San Diego meant that anyone who’s anyone had a belly ring. Long story short, I got one and let it close up 3 months later. I live in Texas most of the time, with a big coat covering my tummy, and no respectable beach (sorry to the Galveston lovers). The ring got pulled and tangled, fell out twice, and was more infected then I care to divulge. Impractical.
4. My passions aren’t random—they’re my calling.
I struggled with this a lot when I was deciding on a major. I love the written language and I could geek out about religious history for eternity (pun). Just because what I like seemed different than the other girls didn’t mean I was random or weird (though I am for other reasons).
5. Be Rachel.
Similarly to above, 2013 has really helped me come to terms with the fact that what’s fun for other people might not (and often won’t be) fun for me too (and vice versa--I'm aware that not everyone likes puzzles, pie, and pajamas).
6. When going to bed in embarrassing pajamas (particularly lime green footies with monkeys and peppermints), set sweats and a jacket by the bed in case of fire alarms.
My apartment complex has been testing my patience, and has had four lovely, earsplitting alarms this past semester. Each time I am in horrible, socially unacceptable pajamas (that I love to the ends of the Earth). Ratty t-shirt that barely covers? Check. Lime green nightgown? Oh yes. Footies of all patterns and colors? But, alas. Just learn from my mistakes and have fire alarm clothes handy. Please.
7. People aren’t thinking of you as much as you think they are.
They don’t notice you’re walking to class alone, and don’t care that much about the picture you just posted. Inhale some oxygen and keep movin’, friend.
8. Choose magazines like friends.
Celebrity gossip is a sugary trap: the buzz and then the crash. Just as the modeling agency was toxic for me, dwelling on successful models and celebrities can be just as dangerous. This year I’ve become a huge fan of Kinfolk and Darling magazines, filling my thinking cap with thoughts with worth and innovative ideas.
9. Keep your standards high.
When it comes to boys, don’t settle. End of discussion.
10. Thou shalt not go anywhere without a Camelbak water bottle.
11. Thou shalt also not skip morning coffee.
During the last week of school, my slice of Texas was hit with the “ice-pocalypse.” Slipping on solid ice all the way to Kroger was not on the to-do list, and it was finals week, so I settled for vending machine energy drinks for two weeks. Boom, crash, burn, cry, panic attack. Lesson learned.
12. Don’t be afraid to be smart.
I’ve written about my anxious nature plenty of times. This anxiety absolutely transfers over to the classroom. If my hand is raised, my heart is probably pounding. I don’t really mind speaking in front of the class, but I’m dreadfully afraid of being labeled “the smart girl.” You’d think it’d be flattering when people are over-the-top eager to be your partner on a group project—high school proved the contrary.
13. Twenty is too old for your high school denim shorts.
Goodbye white denim and green Hollister low-riders. You will be missed. (You make me look like I’m longing for 14, and that is an age I truly do not wish to repeat.)
14. Running is not the only kind of exercise.
Growing up a competitive swimmer and being a cheerleader in middle school and high school taught me that while the rest of the world trudges along in tennis shoes, I can have a lot more fun while I sweat. (Though, I did do summer cross-country freshman year of high school. Luckily, for the sake of my point, it didn’t turn out so well.)
As Kinfolk says, “Do some aqua aerobics or just jump in a lake...Skateboard across town. Try to resist grabbing the back of a truck...Chase small children around a muddy field: They cannot get enough.”
15. What you enjoyed doing as a 10-year-old is probably what you enjoy doing now.
I read the line in Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, and was captivated. Ten-year-old Rachel, with chubby cheeks and short, blonde hair, loved to play dress-up, color, play in the backyard, read, and make food for others. Almost-20-year-old Rachel enjoys the very same things.
16. Leggings can be pants if you want them to be pants.
Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
17. Chose your company wisely.
The quote is infamous—you become like the five people you spend the most time with. Think about those people. Would you be proud to be a mirror image of them? A melting pot of their qualities? Chose friends you respect, value, and look up to.
18. Make small moments special.
The little things are the best things.
19. Walking is the best way to think.
20. Wake up early.
Seize the day. Though having a lie-in on the weekends and reading amidst rumpled covers is a satisfying treat.
21. Eat well, feel well.
22. Gossip breeds more gossip.
And suddenly, you’re the subject of the gossip. And you feel quite glum. Avoid it, walk away from it, and literally run away from it, if need be.
23. Unplug your phone.
25. Christmas music year-round is not breaking the “rules.”
It’s celebrating Christ’s birth daily, rather than “saving it” for a certain season. And while we’re at it, Christmas movies are good for the soul and make my heart smile. Don’t you dare tell me I can’t watch Eloise at Christmastime tonight (because I’m going to).
Lots of love and warm wishes.
Here's to a brilliant 2014.
If months were our children, and playing favorites was shameful, I would still unabashedly choose December. Spilling with joy, warmth, and little cold-nipped noses, December fosters a special sense of togetherness, genuine love, and benefic interaction. She graces us with her tender charm, lacing the world in a thick, white blanket. Her song is a symphony—she alone is a simultaneous consonance of winter carols, swirling wind, and hearty laughter by the fireplace. Her eyes are twinkling Northern Stars, and her lips are frosted with tiny flakes of snow. Deep-set laugh lines frame her kind complexion—though eternally youthful, she is well versed in tradition. She wades through the world each year—through mangers in stables and teetering trees in campus commons. She’s ethereal and wonderful and gentle. December is a perfect way to end the year—we soak up the blessings, hug tightly, and laugh freely. Then, quietly, softly, gently, we shut the door to the year, allowing December to sleep peacefully behind us. In her place comes January, gifting us with fresh chances and renewed hope.
For all of the reasons that I love December, I adore January for just the opposite. January is a balls-to-walls (origin of the phrase is benign, see here), “out there” kind of gal, absolutely itching to shake the world. She wants change. She craves it.
I love her for her wild spirit. Tangled hair blowing in sea-salty air and a mouth wide-open and smiling, she swallows up life in big, happy gulps. Her zeal is contagious. Her eyes sparkle with confidence, and her mind brims with innovation, creativity, and brilliant new ideas. Life is her canvas, her imagination the paints. Her ideas splash and dance all over the world. She touches people’s hearts and blesses their souls. She prays with grandmothers on the subway, and gives pennies to the little wishful girls with their patent shoes and pink dresses. January dives into academia, swimming through textbooks and literature, as she drenches her mind in the intellect of others and consequently nurtures her own. She likes to keep her pencils sharpened.
Her body is her temple, and is mindful of what she feeds it—wholesome, nourishing food for kick-butt, save-the-world kind of energy. She has big plans. As soon as she awakes in the morning, she thrusts open the curtains, saturating the room with golden sunlight. She lives for the light. She spreads the light. She is a light. Stretching her limbs and naked toes, and basking in the warmth of the sun, she smiles. From under her pillow she pulls out a small notebook and turns the page, synchronously delighting in the crinkly sound of the paper.
“To Do Today,” she inks on the top of the page, with loopy O’s and crossed T’s.
“One - Learn calligraphy.”
She stares up at the ceiling, lost in visions of dipping pens and crimson inkbottles.
“Two – Buy tulips.”
“Three – Polish my Italian compliments.”
She temporarily caps the pen, thinking of cobblestone streets and the charming men selling tomatoes on the corner. “Buongiorno Principessa,” they coo, gifting her with snappy asparagus stalks and richly hued bottles of wine. She would blush a little and glance at her toes, secretly delighting in being Italy’s own little princess.
“Four – Stich together words. Write a book. Find a publisher.”
“Five – Entertain the art of conversation.”
She caps the pen again.
That’s good for today.